The missing cargo ship which reportedly sailed through the English Channel after it had been boarded by pirates, will only have enough fuel to last a few more days at sea, a maritime expert said today.
Nick Davis, of the Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre, said that depending on how fast the Arctic Sea had been travelling, the ship would be likely to become “fuel exhausted” in a matter of days, meaning that it would have to dock to replenish supplies.
The whereabouts of the 4,000-tonne vessel, which had a 15-strong Russian crew on board, remained unclear today following reports that it was spotted about 520 miles off the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa, yesterday.
The Maltese-flagged ship was meant to arrive in Bejaia in northern Algeria with its cargo of about £1m (€1.7m) worth of sawn timber on August 4 but it is unknown what happened following its last official recorded positioning off northern France on July 30.
Numerous theories have been put forward to explain the vessel’s disappearance, ranging from it being boarded by pirates to a commercial dispute.
Mr Davis said he suspected either the latter to be the case or an attempted insurance fraud.
He said: “In my view I think it’s already at its destination and it’s quickly being painted to change its colour and description to shake everybody off the trail.
“That is unless it’s sat somewhere else and whoever’s on the vessel is taking part in financial negotiations for a financial sum.
“I’m pretty confident it’s a straightforward commercial dispute or an attempt to get an insurance payout.”
He was unable to account for yesterday’s sightings of the Arctic Sea off Cape Verde but added that it was likely the ship was somewhere along the west African coast.
“Whoever has taken it over, I’m pretty confident knows what they are doing and they will waste no time at all in getting it to a country that war ships won’t go into.
“It’s even possible it could have turned right when it left the Channel, and gone right up round the top of Scotland to Russia. Once you’ve turned the tracking system off on the ship you can go absolutely anywhere without anyone knowing.”
As Russian officials were attempting to confirm reports of the ship being seen near the Cape Verde islands today, the Arctic Sea’s tracking system was reported to be broadcasting signals from the Bay of Biscay off France.
The Russian maritime website, Sovfrakht, said the signal appeared on a tracking service at about 8.30am but added that it was not known if the AISLive ship tracking system equipment was still actually on the ship.
EU Commission spokesman Dennis Abbott said it was being kept informed of developments by the member states involved.
He added: “We can’t say any more than that because we don’t want to hinder law enforcement activities.”
The ship’s last known radio contact was with British Coastguards when it made routine contact with Dover Coastguard as it was about to enter the Strait of Dover from the North Sea at 1.52pm on July 28.
Days later Interpol informed the British Coastguard that the ship had been hijacked days before in the Baltic Sea.
According to reports, it was boarded by up to 10 armed men purporting to be anti-drugs police on July 24.
Some 12 hours later, the intruders apparently left the ship on a high-speed inflatable boat and allowed the vessel to continue on its passage but with its communications equipment damaged.
By the time Interpol alerted Dover Coastguard about the apparent hijacking, the Arctic Sea had already passed through the English Channel, UK Coastguards said.
Its last confirmed recording on the AISLive ship tracking system off the coast of Brest, northern France, was just before 1.30am on July 30.
Mr Abbott confirmed that radio calls were apparently received from the ship to suggest it had been attacked a second time, this time off the coast of Portugal.
He added: “It would seem that these activities, such as they have been reported, have nothing in common with traditional piracy or armed robbery at sea.”
Nato said it was monitoring the situation but was not directly involved in the search.